Posted by: atowhee | January 31, 2008

Snow Days Along Ashland Creek & The Tunnel of Love

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Dipper                              male Junco

Snow, that’s been the word this week here in Ashland. On Sunday morning, just before the first of a series of snowfalls, Bridget and I walked upper Granite Street. There was a singing Dipper just off the roadway. I found him on one of the rocks midstream in Ashland Creek. The pewter sky hinted of snow flurries to come. The air was heavy, cold, motionless. As if it were already frozen. But the bird’s song was warm, belying the snowmelt in the stream and snow-promise in the air. Then I noticed a second Dipper further downstream. There quickly followed a series of upstream and downstream aerial chases, with one of the Dippers singing the while. On each pass the Dippers maintained a distance of a few feet and assiduously followed the stream’s course, including the section that passed through an eight-foot high culvert. The pair of Dippers had found their tunnel of love, for surely this culvert was to be the heart of their territory, where they might later this year build their nest. The first of these recent snowstorms covered every outdoor surface with heavy, wet snow. Nearly a foot accumulate din our garden over a 24-hour period. Some tree branches could not support the heavy snow and broke. The usual garden birds were eager to find the food beneath the heavy cedars where the ground remained bare. After I cleared off the platform feeder and perches of the hanging feeders, those were equally popular. Though snow covered nearly every inch of earth and many leaves as well, no new species came into the garden. I heard a Downy but he stayed in the trees as did the Flickers. I heard a Hairy Woodpecker in Lithia Park near the Pioneer Trail Bridge. It was the usual crowd: jays, three chickadee species, Juncos galore, Mourning Doves, a single Red-breasted Nuthatch, the resident male Spotted Towhee. One brief period of sunlight on Tuesday brought out the male Anna’s Hummingbird to the nectar bottle. Then this morning after more snow had fallen I heard him snapping his tail feathers in a territorial dive, then caught sight of him going like light across the treetops uphill from the garden.

The Waxwings continue to move about the valley in tight flocks. Over a hundred were swerving around the hillside above our house this morning. Earlier in the week there’d been more than 200 of them with even more Robins on a hillside covered with madrone and oaks bearing mistletoe.

The snow and cold nights have reduced the patch of open water on the Upper Duck Pond. Can’t be more than 300 square feet of open water now, a room 15 X 20 feet. Yet there are still at least 150 Mallards. Only eight Wood Ducks remained this morning. I’m sure the others have headed for swifter, thus unfrozen, water down on Bear Creek and in some parks of lower Ashland Creek. Conratsted with Mallards, the Wood Ducks are more flighty and frighty and thus find it easier to wing off when the local conditions get uncomfortable. Somehow they’ll know when the pond’s once again open water, and most will return.

Robins can often be seen in treetops. No hope of finding any lawn, much less any earthworms in this frigid season. They ignore our feeders. In this season the Robins are largely silent until the temperatures reach at least forty, then you begin to hear some whinnies. The Red-breasted Nuthatch will get agitated or inspired and you’ll hear him playing his little tin horn for a minute or longer. The chickadees will scold and fuss if I go into the garden during meal-time. The local woodpeckers may call occasionally. But the world is largely devoid of any real birdsong besides the Dipper. Yet there’s almost always a subtle avian conversation carried on. The Juncos have a surprising variety of calls and notes that I’ve never heard before. In their social winter flocks, spaced  every few feet by a mandate for personal space, there’re frequent electrostatic whisperings. The Juncos’ sound waves mimicing dancing electrons.  Plus their thin, high whistles, like half a Wigeon’s squeak. The Juncos’ discussions are prolix. Walk up to a tree where several sit in the branches and you could feel like you’ve entered a classroom while the teacher’s gone. Little talks and private Junco murmurings on all sides.  So the Juncos become the counterpoint to the watery rumble of Ashland Creek, pushed against the granite boulders and rocky embankments. As the snow covers the earth, it also seems to dampen down, to blanket most sound. Rising physically and vocally above the snow are the Juncos. When the gang busts up this spring I shall miss them.


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